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Sir Ron's university challenge

Dearing tells ministers that they must promote the new-style loans for higher education. Ben Russell reports

Ministers must act now to get more people into higher education, Sir Ron Dearing said this week.

He said a high-profile campaign to promote the new system of student loans and swift action to widen participation in higher education should be top priorities for the Government.

Sir Ron - who has just completed a mammoth inquiry into higher education - said that giving extra cash to universities with a good track record in widening participation was essential to stop tuition fees and the loss of student grants putting the children of low-income families off university.

He said: "If you don't do this there will be damage. I regard this as a top policy priority."

The publication of Sir Ron's 1,700-page report into the future of higher education was overshadowed last week by the Government's instant rejection of his key recommendation on funding.

Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett abandoned Sir Ron's idea of retaining grants for university students while imposing Pounds 1,000-a-year fees, paid for with a state-backed loan.

Mr Blunkett chose instead to carry out his manifesto pledge to abolish grants, replacing them with enlarged student loans for maintenance. Students from well-off backgrounds will have to pay Pounds 1,000-a-year fees up front, but a sliding scale will remove fees for the children of low-income families.

Speaking in his first full interview since publishing his report last week Sir Ron said the Government had moved significantly towards his ideas on funding since the election.

He said ministers should learn from the Australian government, which runs high-profile campaigns to sell students the idea of loans.

He said: "It's very difficult to know how people will react and a lot will depend on the extent to which the Government gets the facts across to the young people in schools."

He added it was vital to communicate that this was not an ordinary debt, and that if you don't earn you don't pay.

But he called for swift action to implement some of the other 93 recommendations in his report.

Research funding is also high on Sir Ron's wish-list. He appealed for urgent action to implement his proposal for a multi-million-pound research fund, bringing together charitable, business and public-sector funding.

"I met with industry and charities and said let us explore these ideas, because I have prepared the way forward," he said.

Teaching standards should also be addressed soon, he said, arguing that ministers should give a strong signal to vice-chancellors to tighten self-regulation. "The Government should put its weight behind what we had to say on quality," he said.

Sir Ron praised the work of FE colleges, pinpointed by his research on Higher National Diploma and Certificate courses. "We think demand will lead to much of the growth being in the HND and HNC-level courses, and we say much of that growth should take place in FE colleges, which we think are doing a good job."

He praised efforts to improve links between colleges and universities, but warned against outright merger.

The first university-college merger, involving Derby University and two local colleges, has been backed by regional officials.

FE Focus, page 31

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